Much as explorers gazed in disbelief when they discovered hieroglyphics, I sometimes find my colleagues transfixed by my notebook. Why? Because it’s a rat’s maze of ancient looking squiggles that are unintelligible to their young eyes.
These inky indentations are not hieroglyphics, but shorthand — a skill that is seldom used in the day of the voice recorder. To my Gen Y colleagues, my recollections of manual typewriters and shorthand dictation tests may seem as though I have been around since those ancient Egyptian symbols were being hammered into stone.
But hey: sometimes the old ways are the best. Join me as I remember how shorthand was hammered into me.
Shorthand is something I still use every day, a skill I learned as part of my newspaper journalism course in the UK taught by the inimitable Mrs Beavers. She was a formidable lady with a strong Scottish accent who rolled her r’s with aplomb, and ended each sentence an octave higher — adding to the musical quality of her intonation.
Everyone was subject to Mrs Beavers’ teachings as the redoubtable oracle of all things shorthand. Well practised in teaching the art, she ruled with an iron rod.
The Victorians even avidly consumed shorthand translations of Robinson Crusoe and
Sherlock Holmes stories.
As part of the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ newspaper journalism course, we were required to study Teeline, a shorthand system adopted by the NCTJ. Pitman teacher James Hill designed this alphabetic system in the 1960s. The new discipline was designed to be mastered quickly, and then built on with increasing speed, said to be much easier to learn than the more complicated, phonetic based, Pitman shorthand. Which is a shame, because ‘Pitman shorthand’ is much more fun to say.
Pitman was invented way back in the 1800s. It remained a style beloved by top secretarial schools for decades, originally written using an ink pen with a nib. Writers such as Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys are said to have loved it. At that time it’s likely that shorthand was seen as the latest innovation — probably creating as much interest as the launch of a new iPhone today. The Victorians even avidly consumed shorthand translations of Robinson Crusoe and Sherlock Holmes stories.
All the Haste, None of the Waste
As you might expect, speed is the beating heart, the very purpose of shorthand. (Isaac Pitman, creator of the Pitman method, noted that when people correspond by shorthand, “friendships grow six times as fast as under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand.”) The NCTJ course required you graduate in a year, passing all modules from newspaper journalism to local government and law — including a minimum requirement of 100 words per minute shorthand. All that before going on to finish your training working in a newsroom.
If you didn’t make the grade then you failed the entire course. I remember my friend Sue, a former secretary (now Regional PR Manager at Brain Tumour Research UK) starting the journalism course with an impressive 150 words per minute in the far more complicated Pitman discipline. She passed the shorthand module at a time when the rest of us were struggling to decipher whether our squiggle meant and or ant.
I tend to prefer shorthand. A practised pen can notate quickly and transcribing takes much less time than
listening to a tape.
Thankfully, Mrs Beavers was not one to consider failure an option. As the weeks went on those scribbles transformed in front of our eyes to a legible new language. And it took practice to master this language. The skill of shorthand is twofold: learning to write new symbols and more importantly, to be able to read them back and understand what we had written.
Those notes on which our early stories were built can probably still be found stored in dated notebooks on newspaper office shelves, dusty examples of the still legible verbatim note.
With practice our transcriptions became more and more accurate — all thanks to Mrs Beavers. The result was yet another batch of cub reporters of which she could be proud, including my classmates international broadcaster Piers Morgan and Sky News’ sports presenter Charlie Thomas.
For many of us it’s a skill that is still in use, as Piers confirmed to me just days ago. “Twice in recent years my tape recorder’s broken when I’ve been doing a print interview, and both times I was able to draw on my old Teeline to save myself,” he says. “You never lose it, well not completely — and for that I thank Mrs Beavers!”
Today, although the majority of my colleagues employ voice recorders, I tend to prefer shorthand. A practised pen can notate quickly and transcribing takes much less time than listening to a tape.
I still find something quite exciting about transcribing pages of symbols, bringing an interview back to life. Like being able to read a foreign language, there’s something rewarding about that knowledge — which I guess is how the inventors of ancient hieroglyphics felt.